Saturday, September 30, 2006

“Shades of Grey”

James 3:13-18[1]

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of movies. And, of course, one of my favorite genres of movie is the Western. One of the reasons why I like Westerns is that they present an interesting case study in the development of our culture. For some reason, Westerns have a way of taking on all the cultural values of the time in which they were made.

If you watch a classic like “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” you see the culture of the 50’s reflected—the good guys are good and they all wear white hats, the bad guys are bad and they wear black hats. All the lines are clear and there’s no mistaking who’s good and who’s bad. But if you move forward a few years, you see how much things changed. In “Once Upon a Time in the West,” you begin to see the lines blur. It’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad—you can no longer rely on the color of their hats! By the time you get to the early 70’s, movies like “The Outlaw Josie Wales” or “High Plains Drifter” seem to revel in mixing things up—you have the bad “good guys” versus the good “bad guy”

Keeping Up Appearances. I suppose the lesson of those genre-bending Westerns from the late 60’s and early 70’s is that we live in a world where appearances can be deceiving. I think that was what fueled the sweeping cultural changes of that era—an awareness that the good guys weren’t always all that good, and the bad guys weren’t always all bad. The effort to “keep up appearances” in our culture did a poor job of concealing the reality that lay underneath—prejudice, hypocrisy, dishonesty, greed, selfishness. Just ask African Americans about how good the “good old days” were. Or people who embraced a socialist political agenda. Or people who grew up in alcoholic homes. Or homosexual people. Or women who had to suffer abuse in silence. The cultural upheaval that came in those days was so forceful because so much injustice had been covered over by “appearances.”

Unfortunately, all too often those who are so worried about “keeping up appearances” are the very ones whose hearts and lives betray their falsehood. James says that they are the ones who undermine peace through jealousy, selfishness, arrogant pride, and backbiting. As Gene Peterson translates it, “Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats”! (Jas. 3:16, The Message).

Making Faith Real. It should come as no surprise that James has no use for “keeping up appearances.” I think he was following his brother in that. In fact, they were both following the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. I think we tend to get confused about that. When we think “wisdom” we go to Proverbs and get lost in all the details. It is all too easy to think that “wisdom” in the Old Testament concerns picky details that are just as trivial and useless as the purity laws!

But in reality, “wisdom” is about taking faith and making it real in daily life.[2] That may not be your first impression after scanning the book of Proverbs. I would suggest you read it with a note pad by your side and just jot down themes as you come to them. You’ll soon begin to notice a pattern—wisdom is about living in trust and reverence for the Lord, heeding God’s word, practicing humility, integrity, kindness, patience, gentleness, peace, and justice. Sounds to me like, “By their fruits you will know them”!

So we really should not be surprised when James insists that we take our faith and make it real in everyday life. He’s following his brother, his Lord, and his Savior. He’s following the heart of the Old Testament wisdom tradition. The life of faith is not about “keeping up appearances,” but about practicing meekness, humility, integrity, mercy, peace, and justice. James puts it this way: “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:17).

Seeds of Peace. The Christian gospel is that we don’t have to work to earn God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean that the Christian life doesn’t involve work. It takes a great deal of concerted effort to make our faith real in everyday living. It happens over the course of months and years of embracing the teachings of Scripture, opening our hearts to God’s Spirit, and submitting ourselves to God. That was one of the things Jesus consistently stressed—delighting in God’s word to such an extent that it redefines how you live (Luke 11:28; cf. Psalm 1:2). [3]

As James knew very well, a life that is characterized by delighting in God’s word is one that produces good fruit. The wisdom that comes from God produces peace that lasts.[4] Or as Gene Peterson translates it, “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God … only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor” (Jas. 3:18, The Message).[5] May it be so among us.

[1] A sermon preached 9/24/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Paul Tillich, “On Wisdom,” in The Eternal Now, 167-72.

[3] J. L. Mays, Psalms, 41-42: “It is from [Scripture] that wisdom for the living of life can be gained. It is the medium from which one can learn the way and will of the Lord and store up that learning in one’s heart so that it shapes the structure of consciousness. This is the reason why torah is the cause of delight, not because it is an available instrument of self-righteousness … but because the Lord reaches, touches, and shapes the human soul through it.”

[4] Cf. J. Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 289, 291-92, where he describes the church as the sign of Christ’s increasing lordship in this realm, which means that the church is a fellowship of peace, freedom, and service.

[5] See Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 124-125, where he talks about how difficult human relationships are. Cf. his Reaching Out, 46-78, where he describes the process of moving from hostitility to becoming open to others in hospitality.

“An American Story”

James 2:1-10; Mk. 7:24-37[1]

In the 1997 movie, “The Devil’s Own,” Brad Pitt plays an Irish terrorist named Frankie McGuire who comes to the US to buy missiles for the IRA. He’s provided a cover identity and hooked up with an honest, Irish-American cop named Tom O’Meara, played by Harrison Ford. When the cop begins to put the pieces together and figures out who McGuire really is, he decides to bring McGuire in alive. At the tragic ending, McGuire tells him, “Don’t look for a happy ending. It’s not an American Story, it’s an Irish Story.”

It’s not an American story. We like happy endings, where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. We like it when the underdog rises up to succeed against all odds. What that means, I think, is we assume that poverty is not a truly American story. We assume that anyone can pull themselves up with enough hard work, and that anyone who is poor just hasn’t tried hard enough. That may have worked at one time, but the reality of urban life in the new millennium is that it doesn’t any more. There are millions of hard-working people who live in poverty.

Unfortunately, our visions of what God is doing in our world tend to be utopian rather than concrete. In part, focusing on those “other worldly” dimensions of God’s Kingdom lets us off the hook. When we keep our thoughts on streets of gold we don’t have to worry about the streets of asphalt around us. Jesus didn’t take that approach to the Kingdom of God. He proclaimed God’s reign—here and now, not just in the sweet by and by. And he made the Kingdom scandalously concrete—it means justice for the oppressed, mercy for the poor, and release for the captives.

Why this emphasis on the poor, on mercy, and on justice? One of the major points of Jesus’ ministry was to call the people of Israel back to God’s design for living life. That’s what justice is about in the Bible. Justice is not about making laws, keeping laws, and enforcing laws. It’s about living life the way it ought to be lived in relationship with God. Over and over again, the Bible insists that those who love God and will love others, and they will show it by practicing justice and mercy toward the destitute.[2]

Jesus’ expectations for those who claimed to have experienced the blessings of God’s kingdom were no different. What was new was that Jesus said God had begun to establish his reign once and for all, which means that God had begun to do something restore life to the way it ought to be—right here and right now.

The crowds who followed Jesus were mostly made up of common people. They didn’t know where their daily bread was coming from today, let alone tomorrow or next week. They literally had one set of clothes—an inner and an outer garment. They crammed an entire family into a room the size of my bedroom at home. They were disenfranchised and disempowered and hopeless. They were beaten down and constantly deprived of basic human dignity.

The disenfranchised and disempowered are still with us. 80% of the world’s population lives at a level below $2000 per year. Most of own something we don’t absolutely need that costs that much! In the US, the census bureau says that a family of 4 living on less than $20,000 is living in poverty. By their measures, there are about 40 million people living in poverty in this country. Who are they? Seniors who cannot work and only receive a meager income from social security. Children living in households run by single mothers. Couples who work but only make minimum wage (2 people working full time at minimum wage of $5.15/hour would not bring home $20,000 a year!).

Why should we care? The Bible says we should care because God cares for them. It says we should care because God has shown his care to us. It says we should care because Jesus made it clear that the poor and the destitute are the ones whom God intends to redeem. Jesus offers no theoretical basis for practicing mercy and justice. He doesn’t talk about social contracts or categorical imperatives. The basis for Jesus’ demand for justice is not “fairness.” Fairness presupposes that everyone is on equal footing socially and economically. It tends toward an ethics of “let me take care of myself and you take care of yourself.” I don’t think Jesus would have been satisfied with that.

The basis for the kind of justice Jesus demanded was own life. He set a concrete example of that kind of life by living it out for us. Why should we try to follow his example? There are all kinds of reasons, but ultimately it’s because that’s the way God intended for human life to be.

Part of the problem is that we’re essentially selfish people, interested in our own welfare. We even practice our piety for our own sakes, so we can feel good about ourselves. At root, we have to make a fundamental change to orient our lives toward the welfare of others. Only then will justice become a heart-felt passion for us.

Then we can see the poor as human beings and not look down on them. Then we can see how the tragedy of homelessness is such an affront to God’s justice. Then we can see how our luxuries may mean others are deprived of basic necessities. Then we can see the suffering of those who are oppressed by the power structures that give us preferential treatment. Once our eyes are opened, and we see things from a biblical perspective, it becomes like a “fire in our bones” that cannot be put out unless we do something about it.

[1] A Sermon preached 9/9/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 451.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

“Real Faith”[1]

James 1:17-27

America is into “reality.” Or so it would seem, from a quick glance at the television lineup. The show “Survivor” started it all off a few years ago. It was so successful that it spawned a whole new genre, “reality TV.” Now we have “Wife Swap”, “Fear Factor,” and “American Chopper.” It seems there's no end to the possibilities for “reality TV.” The irony to me is that it seems that, more than ever before, Americans are turning to “reality TV” precisely to escape reality. I would say there’s precious little “reality” in “reality TV.” We may see people as they really are, but how many “real” people do we see?

I think this problem crosses over into the spiritual aspects of our lives as well. Being a “real” person isn’t easy. We have to face our demons; we have to come to terms with our dirty laundry; we have to come clean with ourselves.

One of the basic teachings of Scripture about faith is that it must be real. According to James, there’s no such thing as faith that’s a sham. It’s either real or it’s not faith. And if it’s not real, the only person we’re fooling is ourselves.

The Bible consistently demands that faith be real. According to Scripture, real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.[2] From the very beginning, God’s amazing grace has demanded of us that we not simply respond by saying something, but by doing something.[3] God has always expected those who profess faith in him to show that their faith truly makes a difference in the way they live.[4] Otherwise, it’s no faith at all; as Jesus said, it’s just “lip service” (Mk. 7:6-7; quoting Isa. 29:13). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, only those who are obedient believe![5]

Now it may seem strange to people raised on Paul's gospel of “justification by grace” through faith to hear this. When James says that “true religion” is to bridle your tongue, care for widows and orphans, and keep yourself untainted by the world (Jas. 1:27), it sounds like he’s making a new set of rules to follow. It sounds like he’s trying to set up a “religion” in the institutional sense of the word rather than promoting Christian faith. But when we look more closely at Scripture, we find that James’ demand for faith that changes the way you live stands right in the mainstream of biblical teaching.

The interesting feature of James’ contribution to this line of biblical teaching is the way he gets specific. James is not content to state the principle that we demonstrate real faith by how we live. He characteristically goes right to the heart of the matter by finding concrete illustrations. It should come as no surprise that he pinpoints these three specific areas—how you use your words, how you treat the powerless and destitute, and how you view “holiness.” A quick overview of Scripture will show how often they show up as indicators of real faith or the lack thereof!

If you think about it, these three areas of our lives are precisely where the lack of real faith shows up. How easy is it to turn from our “Christian life” to cursing, slandering, and condemning another person! How easy it is to make ourselves feel less impotent in this world by mistreating someone who has no voice! How easy it is to rationalize and justify our failure to “do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with our God” by wrapping ourselves in a mantle of false piety—we and people like us are “holy,” but those who are different aren’t.

It seems to me that is precisely the problem with American Christianity. In our society religion is a cultural phenomenon—it enforces the norms and standards of the status quo and uses the Bible and church as tools to that end. But since God’s word challenges all societies and cultures to recognize their profound failures, we must ignore it. That means justifying the way things are by presuming that we’re holy and those who differ from us are unholy (and therefore they’re to blame for all the problems). If we are going to support our culture as it is, then we must become “merely hearers who deceive themselves” (Jas. 1:22).

What about that part where James talks about keeping yourself untainted from the world? It sounds like James would fit right in with our self-justifying version of holiness. But that’s precisely not what James is saying. He’s echoing what Jesus said—it's not the so-called cultural “sins” that defile you, that render you “unclean” or impure in God's sight. You know what I’m talking about here—those ways we define people who are different from us as “less than” us regardless of their true character! For the Pharisees of Jesus’ day it was washing your hands the right way. We have different ways of defining people as unholy, but they are just as culturally motivated.

But Jesus says that it is what you do that defiles you. The list that Jesus makes has some things in it that I think we'd all agree have a unique ability to poison your soul—taking what you want, refusing to tolerate any rival, blowing your own horn, using others for your own gratification. Jesus presents us with a choice. The reality is that if we choose to live the life of real faith, we will have to turn our back on sham religion that justifies our sin. Real faith is about God’s grace changing your heart and mind so much that it changes the way you live.

[1] A sermon preached 9/3/06 First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Emil Brunner, The Divine Imperative, 116, speaking of God claiming us for his kingdom through his love.

[3] Cf. Paul Tillich, “Doing the Truth,” The Shaking of the Foundations, 114-117.

[4] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 187-206; Brian McLaren, Generous Orthodoxy, 249-51.

[5] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 63.

“Training Days”[1]

Ephesians 6:10-20

Testing Day. In the 2001 film “Training Day,” Ethan Hawke plays Jake, a young, idealistic LA cop who is eager to work his way up the ladder to detective. He particularly wants to be a narcotics officer so he can clean up the streets and make them safer for kids. His dream turns into a nightmare, however, when he’s paired with Detective Alonso Harris, head of an elite undercover narcotics squad. Alonso is played by Denzel Washington—he’s handsome, All-American, and very charismatic. The problem is that he’s also so dirty that there’s no apparent difference between him and the drug dealers he’s supposedly trying to bust.

In order to make the narcotics squad, Jake has to spend the day with Alonso and prove he’s got what it takes. But Jake’s head starts spinning from the very beginning, because it’s hard to tell whether Alonso is for real. Alonso plays a constant mind game with Jake—bullying and then buddying up with his big smile. We finally learn that Alonso’s true objective is to score a million dollars to pay off the Russian mob for having “accidentally” killed one of them. His plan is to murder a former partner who has turned drug dealer and steal his stash. And it looks like he’s going to pin it on Jake! As it turns out, Alonso is more of a drug king-pin than he is an LA police detective.

But Jake doesn’t know that. From the very beginning, Jake has to fight to hold onto his sanity in this world-turned-upside-down. It becomes apparent that it’s almost impossible to know when Alonso is being straight with Jake, and when he’s setting him up. As it turns out, Jake’s “training day” is really a “testing day” that will require not only all his police training, but also every shred of integrity and every ounce of perseverance he can muster if he’s going to make it out alive, let alone with his career and his life intact.

Masquerade. There’s a lot about this film that is very distasteful. But I like the way it portrays evil as something that’s hard to recognize. That’s the nature of evil in our world. If it were clearly recognizable, it would be easy to avoid. But the reality is that the evil in this world masquerades itself under many guises that appear to be good. Nobody’s going to say, “We’re trying to take over this or that Christian denomination because they won’t let us have control.” They’re going to say, “We’re calling the church back to the word of God.” Evil parades through our world like wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing!

How do we prepare for life in a world like that? How do we maintain our integrity, our commitment to following Christ, and our love for others when it’s not even apparent whom you can trust? I submit to you that it takes training. Not the kind of training Jake endured—that was testing. We have to train ourselves for the battle. And it is a battle—make no mistake about it!

Training Days. Paul gives us some ideas about how to prepare ourselves. The first thing is that we have to recognize that our battle is not against other people! Too often we personalize these matters and attack the person. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the “spiritual” realm. And I don’t pretend to understand the existence of evil in this world. And I don’t believe much of the talk about angels and demons that gets batted around. But the reality is that there is a power at work in the world that seems to be beyond simple human selfishness or cruelty. There are forces at work in our world that are evil to a degree that surpasses our human ability to conjure. And they are almost always deceptive and manipulative and hard to recognize. I think our training for the fight against evil begins with this recognition.

Paul’s words suggest some disciplines we have to adopt in order to train ourselves for the testing day.

One is to make the settled determination that you are going to obey God’s will as you understand it. Along with that is the commitment to practicing integrity in every facet of your life, in every relationship, in every conceivable situation. Again—in so far as it is possible. I think this is what Paul means when he says, “Let the truth be like a belt around your waist, and let God’s justice protect you like armor (Eph. 6:14, CEV).

A second discipline is study. The gospel of salvation by grace and the coming kingdom of God is not easy to understand. And yet, as the Confession of 1967 says, “our strength is in the confidence that God’s purpose rather than human schemes will prevail.”[2] But it takes disciplined study to understand this good news.

One element in this is Bible study. Yes, this is a very traditional practice, but there is no substitute for reading the Bible through over and over again.[3] It is the only way you can really understand what is important and what is peripheral to the Gospel. That kind of study is what Jesus was talking about when he called people to eat the bread of life. He was talking about ingesting his words, meditating on them, internalizing them, and remaining attentive to God’s voice.[4] This also involves studying the works of authors who communicate the gospel in ways that make it more understandable[5]—some of my favorites include Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, and Richard Foster. This also includes theologians like Emil Brunner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich.

A third discipline is prayer.[6] Prayer keeps us related to God. It is a source of strength and wisdom. Prayer opens us to the resources that God provides in the battle against evil. Prayer restores our faith and our determination to practice integrity. As Gene Peterson renders it in the Message, “pray hard and long” (Eph 6:18).

Living the Christian Life is not easy in the face of evil that masquerades itself in many disguises. It takes training. And for training to be successful, you have to make it a discipline. Come up with a plan. Schedule it into your day. Do it repeatedly. Then, when you find yourself in a situation where the world seems to have turned upside down and it’s hard to tell who’s a sheep and who’s a wolf, you can rely on the instincts and wisdom you’ve built up over time.

[1] A sermon preached 8/27/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] The Book of Confessions, 9.25.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 50-51, 53.

[4] Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 72; Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 19; Bonhoeffer, 56, 81-82; Frederick Buechner, Now and Then, 3.

[5] Nouwen, 71; Foster, 54.

[6] Nouwen, 68; Foster, 34.

“The Spiritual Life”[1]

Ephesians 5:15-21

What does it look like to be “spiritual”? It depends on the time and the place you live in. In the Medieval age, for example, the sign of spirituality was a halo-like “aura.” Just look at medieval paintings that depict “spiritual” people. For much of church history, the “spiritual look” has involved wearing a certain kind of clothing and perhaps even a certain hairdo. In the days when monasteries were the places where truly spiritual people lived, the look was made of a robe of rough cloth and a very short haircut. In some places today, the look means dressing like a Jewish rabbi from 17th century Poland. In other places, it means that women don’t cut their hair and men always wear white shirts and ties.

The Spiritual Look. But the reality is that true spirituality has very little to do with looks. In fact, there have been many charlatans and con-men and -women who fooled a lot of people into following them because they looked “spiritual”—whether that meant wearing fine robes or having a “prophet’s” hairdo (bouffant hair combed straight back with a white streak down the middle).

It’s funny how these con-men and con-women—the very ones who give so much attention to looks—are always devoted to power, prestige, or just plain cash! I’ve known a lot of people over the last 25 or so years of ministry, and it still amazes me how true that statement is today. They’ll use any means to get what they want; they don’t hesitate to destroy anyone or anything that they can’t control; their mode of operation is ruthless, heartless, cutthroat, vicious—and all with a “holier than thou” smile! If that’s what it means to be spiritual, you can count me out!

The Look of the Spirit. Like Jesus and the rest of the NT apostles, Paul does not define spirituality that way. Paul defines true spirituality in terms of how you live, not how you look. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the spiritual life as “being filled with the Spirit.” Then he goes on to tell us what that looks like—not in terms of hairdos or clothes, but in terms of how you act. Paul says that true spirituality looks like heartfelt joy that is expressed in worship and genuine fellowship with others. It looks like thankfulness for the love that we have encountered, no matter what the circumstances. It looks like submission to others out of respect for and in obedience to Christ’s example!

Wait a minute, what’s “submission” doing there? What does submitting to others have to do with being spiritual? Isn’t that something people do when they’re too weak to stand up for themselves? These days I think there’s a lot of confusion about what it means to “submit” in the sense that Paul was talking about. Some have tried to define the Greek word he used as it was in classical Greek literature, in terms of accepting one’s place in a military chain of command. But Paul isn’t talking about the military here—when he illustrates what he’s trying to say, he points to Jesus on the cross!

I think “submission” also gets too wrapped up in the debate over how husbands and wives relate to each other. You know, that tired, worn-out debate about what role a man should fulfill, what role a woman should fulfill, etc., etc. Again, if you read what Paul has to say about how “submission” works itself out in the home, he’s clearly not creating any hierarchies.

When Paul says that “submission” is a mark of true spirituality, he’s talking about respect for the dignity of other human beings as God’s beautiful creation and beloved children.[2] He’s talking about yielding to others rather than insisting on one’s own agenda.[3] He’s talking about serving one another through love rather than seeking our own selfish ambition.[4]

Following Jesus. And we do all that not because we are too weak to do anything else but “out of reverence for Christ.” True spirituality looks like—the life of Jesus the Christ! At the end of the day, “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity. It is the pattern by which every other claim about the spiritual life must be measured if it is to be considered Christian.” [5]

The kind of spirituality that Paul is talking about looks a lot more like Mother Teresa giving her life away in service to the poor and downtrodden than like some high-powered TV preacher in a silk suit! It looks a lot more like Henri Nouwen leaving a prestigious academic career behind to accept a rather obscure position in a home for the mentally handicapped than like some slick activist clamoring for media attention to promote some divisive agenda or another! It looks like the “fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, and peace; it looks like the Kingdom of God, which is “justice, peace, and joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17 REB).

[1]A sermon preached 8/20/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 255, where he says Christian fellowship “combines respect for the other person’s freedom with deep affection for him or her as a person.” See also ibid., 258, where he says, “the basic law of the community of Christ is acceptance of others in their difference, for it is this experience of our neighbours, and only this, which is in line with Christian experience of God.”

[3] See Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 111, defines submission as freedom “to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.”

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 283-84. Cf. ibid., 289, where he calls the church “the messianic fellowship of service for the kingdom of God in the world.” See also Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 190.

[5] Luke T. Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, 201; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 278, calls this “a life in accordance with the gospel of Christ.” Cf. Foster, 117, “We are commanded to live a life of submission because Jesus lived a life of submission.”